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10 March 2008

Why this silence over rape?

It's not the law on rape, it's the culture from the police canteens, to the courts, juries, the pubs

By Beatrix Campbell

Senior Met police officer John Yates has spoken with unprecedented candour about the failure of policing to match the cultural revolution among women, more of whom, with every year that passes, alert the police to rape.

At the beginning of March he repeated in a Guardian interview what he has often said to his colleagues: that detectives don’t bring the same professionalism to rape as they do to other crimes; when a woman reports rape and ‘the body language is sceptical, the voice is sceptical, what is that saying to you?’

The Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner is also the spokesperson on rape for the association of Chief Police Officers. He is a senior officer mandated with reforming the policing of rape, the top man. His collective mea culpa makes him unprecedented in policing – never has a top cop so confidently taken the side of women and so assertively challenged his own professional culture for its failure to do its job.

That makes John Yates interesting. It is unusual for a senior police officer to be both self-critical and openly encouraging the government to participate in a change in our collective consciousness. He deserves better from the political system. The law on rape is not the presenting problem. The culture – from the police canteens, to the courts, to the juries, to the pubs and kitchens of the land – is the problem.

The Sexual Offences Act was well revised by the government, working with experts drawn from the survivors movements, the Rape Crisis centres (themselves in crisis), and emboldened by a coterie of women in the House of Commons who have been the guardians of reform. In the House of Commons there is an unusual consensus among the parties – Yates’ comments attracted a serious response from the Conservative MP Caroline Spelman. The Conservatives have in the last year made bold attempts to connect with the crisis in the prosecution of sexual crime, and with its victims.

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Fear of men has long been an element of Tory appeal to women. It was the foundation of the Tories’ law and order discourse – particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when it animated Tory women’s resistance to the Conservative leaders’ reform of the criminal justice system. In the context of contemporary feminism the Tories lost confidence, they recoiled from the implications of a more comprehensive critique of patriarchal power. But David Cameron has released a new mood among Tory women – in the certain knowledge that his party cannot afford to squander the women’s vote.

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But there is an eerie silence among ministers who usually feel unrestrained in lecturing the people about morals, law, standards. They have not lacked opportunities – Yates’ contribution this month; the evidence gathered by ACPO, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Homes Office, and the Metropolitan Police Service’s own research into its handling of cases: all of this has yielded the devastating case that – as Yates acknowledges – the problem of rape investigations is the investigators.

Why hasn’t the prime minister or the secretary of state for Justice thought it worth commenting publicly on the shattering discoveries of the Met’s research into its own cases of reported rape. It is dynamite: the Met’s researchers discovered a pattern: that that men who like raping women target the very groups least likely to be taken seriously by the police; and among those cases the police didn’t bother to investigate, a significant minority concerned suspects who already had a police record of violence and sex offences.

What explains the lack of public response, the lack of engagement with the electorate, the reluctance to generate a great debate?

There have been other opportunities: the Manchester United players’ party, to which they invited 100 women, and excluded their own partners – an event that produced a reported rape. This government is full of football fans. Why didn’t they seize the time to critique the sexism of the most celebrated team in the country?

Labour seized control of the law and order agenda from the Tories, it has restlessly introduced more law and order legislation than any other, it anxiously monitors focus groups and their populist concerns about crime pubic order, immigration. But is shown no interest in this catastrophe of criminal justice; it has not taken the side of women.

Is it that despite a strong – probably the strongest – feminist presence in the House of Commons, the government just doesn’t notice them, it isn’t much interested in them or in the intelligence they bring to notions of crime and justice? And it just doesn’t know why this issue is important – not just for the victims who have no hope of securing justice, but for public security and for a culture that is inherently compromised by the abuse of women.